German warship enters South China Sea on 1st deployment to region in 20 years

The frigate Bayern is sailing through the South China Sea as part of the first deployment of a German warship to the Indo-Pacific in almost 20 years.

The deployment marks a shift in Germany’s strategy toward the region and it has been rebuked by China. Beijing in September rejected Bayern’s request to make a port call in Shanghai.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that Germany changed its policy,” said Christian-Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, former German ambassador to several key Southeast Asian countries, “but driven by the increasing assertiveness of China, the situation in the region changed. So we had to adapt our strategy.”

“In all my Asian years with assignments in China, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam, I have not observed such a dangerous situation in the region,” Weber-Lortsch said.

Ship-tracking data show the Bayern, a Brandenburg-class frigate with some 230 crew on board, entered the South China Sea early on Tuesday after leaving Busan in Korea on Dec. 6. Its carefully crafted path veered away from the Taiwan Strait, a flashpoint between Beijing and Taipei.

The MarineTraffic data shows the frigate making an intriguing circular pattern in the waters off the Taiwan Strait between Dec. 9 and Dec. 11 before sailing southward.

On Dec. 11, the German parliament, the Bundestag, passed a resolution calling on the government to reassess its Taiwan policy and deepen ties with Taipei while ruling out an establishment of diplomatic relations with the self-governing island that Beijing regards as part of China.

The German government released comprehensive policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific in September 2020, stating that the region is “where the shape of the international rules-based order of tomorrow will be decided.”

“Our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region,” the then-foreign minister Heiko Maas said.

Next stop: Singapore

Following the new strategy, Germany sent frigate Bayern on its first Indo-Pacific deployment that runs from August 2021 to February 2022 with a core mission: flying the German flag.

When German officials announced the mission in March, they said it would be the first such deployment to the region since 2002.

Former ambassador Weber-Lortsch said as a leading export nation Germany concentrated mainly on business interests but now it should follow a “more comprehensive approach, striking a balance between commercial and security considerations.”

The deployment is described as Germany’s contribution to safeguarding the “rules-based” conduct across the Indo-Pacific.

“This voyage is also about demonstrating that Germany will stand by its international partners when it comes to securing the freedom of the sea routes and upholding international law in the region,” the German armed forces said.

China responded that the warship deployment to the South China Sea is intended to "flex muscles and stir up trouble, deliberately creating disputes on maritime issues."

During the deployment, the Bayern has participated in joint exercises with the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. It took part in a surveillance operation to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea before leaving for the South China Sea.

The German Ministry of Defense posted on its Twitter page: “Next stop: Singapore,” adding that the Bayern should arrive in the city before Christmas. The arrival could be as early as this coming weekend.

Frigate Bayern is also scheduled to visit Vietnam, another country in territorial dispute with China. After that it’s expected to make port calls in Sri Lanka and India en route back to base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, in February 2022.

Bayern is one of four German Brandenburg-class frigates mainly used for anti-submarine warfare but also for surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft operations.

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